Its in the cards - Tuesday 12th of July 2005

Its 110 degrees outside, shivery inside, the rows of leather-banked, green felt tables running hot and cold for the shrewdest poker players on the planet in the sporting worlds richest showdown.

All the colorful characters are here -- Texas Dolly, the Brat, the Professor, Jesus, the Unabomber, Magician, Devilfish, Fossilman -- and a couple thousand online aficionados who aspire to make their names and fortunes. Some are math whizzes, some seem clairvoyant. Most play straight, a few lowlifes still try to cheat, nicking cards with their fingernails.

The World Series of Poker, buzzing with celebrities, fans pressing in behind the ropes, feels a little like the Academy Awards, a little like the Super Bowl. Its a rambling day-and-night party of 5,619 players that ends with a main event top prize of $7.5 million, a no-limit Texas Hold em title worth millions more in endorsements, and a platinum, diamond and ruby bracelet that will impress and intimidate opponents for years.

All nine players at the final table, starting this Friday, will walk away with at least $1 million -- the first to bust out making about the same as the mens and womens tennis champs at the upcoming U.S. Open. The big winner in the 35-year-old tournament can brag of a bankroll akin to a season with the New York Yankees.

Payoffs of at least $12,500 will go to the top 560 players, staggered up to $600,000 for 10th place.

Theres no cursing, no smoking and no mercy at the tables in a windowless hangar-like room at Harrahs Rio, curiously just steps away -- through a choking haze of cigarette and cigar smoke in the hallway -- from hundreds of bubbly preteen and teen dancers in glittery costumes and too much makeup at the Spotlight Dance Cup national championship finals.

Thats hardly the only culture clash in this hotel the size of a small town: The day before the World Series main event, God and gambling were joined in the card room when a nun attended the Poker Hall of Fame induction of Jack Binion and Crandell Addington and was handed a $1 million check by Harrahs Entertainment Inc. for a charity that serves the elderly.

Hollywood stars Ben Affleck, James Woods, Tobey Maguire, David Schwimmer, Jennifer Tilly, Mimi Rogers and the many who have played on Celebrity Poker Showdown have given the game a cool cachet. Woods seemed to be everywhere in the runup to the World Series championship, his hair white, his dark suits pressed, his sunglasses always on. He stacked two chairs together to raise himself above the other players and emanated at once high energy and calm.

"I play every single day -- private games, casinos, online," said Woods, who lasted 11 1/2 hours in the first round of the main event before his chips dwindled and he exited Saturday night when his pocket fives lost to pocket queens. "I read about it. Im very committed to it. Im passionate about it. One of the things I like about it is, its a challenge to your mind, your soul. Youve got to be an artist and scientist to play poker well. Im a little of both."

Woods said his style reflects his personality.

"Im a very thoughtful, conscious, analytical person, capable of aggression, but Im very, very careful about it," he said. "I dont want to go to a gunfight with a knife. When I go to a gunfight I want a howitzer. I have a great deal of patience and discipline. Once in a while Ill play a marginal hand, and if I hit it then I can be a real killer."

Asked if his acting skills help him bluff, Woods said: "Its more how I read other people. I know if theyre telling me the truth. Im a director, too, so when I watch people I can tell when theyre lying. Its one of my strengths."

Texas Hold em is a game of skill, judgment, luck and endurance, the days lasting 14 or 15 hours. There are two cards down, a round of bets, the flop of three community cards and more bets, checks or raises. Then theres fourth street, otherwise known as the turn card, then fifth street or the river card, chances to bet after each one, the best five cards out of all seven taking the pot. The blinds -- mandatory bets put in by the two players to the left of the rotating dealer button -- go up as the day goes on, raising the stakes and the pressure.

It takes mental acuity, not physical agility to play the game. Portly defending champion Greg Raymer is the best example that fitness isnt required in a sport where the greatest exertion is flipping cards, stacking chips and lifting drinks. But the long days do take their toll, and more young players are hitting the gym.

"You have to have a tremendous amount of mental and physical stamina," said Robert Williamson III, a 34-year-old pro who proudly says hes half the man he used to be, down from 400 pounds to 200 after gastric bypass surgery three years ago and a lot of workouts since.

"Theres an extreme amount of pressure on your body at the highest level and theres so much money at stake. So it turns out that we really are athletes. You really do have to train and be in a lot better shape than what people think. More players are working out than ever before. Its kind of like when Tiger Woods got on the PGA Tour. Players at the time didnt really work out. They took their skills for granted. I swim about every other day, play basketball, go for a lot of fast walks. Antonio Esfandiari is a workout freak. Annie Duke works out religiously. Phil Ivey and Phil Gordon are in great shape."

Jennifer Harman, as fit and tough a pro as they come, started out chatting amiably with the players at her table last Thursday but quickly was stunned, the victim of a nasty beat when her queens-high full house got rivered by a straight flush. Gone, too, before the dinner break on Day 1 was the actress and recent ladies champion Jennifer Tilly, who lost more than half her chips early when she succumbed to four jacks. Her sweatshirt-hooded boyfriend and popular World Poker Tour player, Phil "Unabomber" Laak, soon followed.

An hour after dinner, two-time World Series champion Johnny Chan, Matt Damons hero in the 1998 film Rounders, was wiped out when his aces fell to a flush.

Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, the dark bearded, long-haired pro who holds a doctorate in computer science from UCLA, exited 14 hours into the first day, about 1:20 a.m., when he moved all-in with three queens after the fourth community card. Kalee Tan, also a pro and one of several hundred women in the event, called and showed her jack-eight pocket cards for a queen-high straight. Ferguson needed a pair on the board to keep going, but got no help on the river card. Tans hands quivered as she raked in the chips. Ferguson wearily walked off, tipping his black cowboy hat and saying, "Its been a pretty hectic day, but it was a lot of fun."

Twenty minutes later, Ferguson was joined on the sideline by Full Tilt Poker teammate Erik Seidel.

By the time the first heat ended on Day 1 at about 2:30 a.m., with the blinds up to $300-$600 plus a $75 ante, the notable departures also included Josh Arieh, Mike Caro and Eskimo Clark.

Raymer -- his bejeweled platinum champions bracelet on his right wrist, a large black polished fossil resting atop his hole cards, holographic sunglasses on whenever he played a hand -- survived the round with $48,900 in chips after slipping from the $10,000 start to $3,500 early in the day. Lee Watkinson, a world-class pro from Cheney, Wash., bagged $145,800 in chips for Sundays second round.

The second heat of the opening round last Friday saw a further drubbing of top players -- Gordon, Esfandiari, Phil Hellmuth, Daniel Negreanu, Men "The Master" Nguyen, Cyndy Violette. The Hollywood set didnt fare well, either, with Maguire and Rogers going out.

The final day of first-round play on Saturday was fatal to the hopes of more legendary players -- Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson, T.J. Cloutier, Andy Bloch -- even before the dinner break. Former NFL star Shannon Sharpe, playing his first tournament just five months after starting to learn the game, cruised into the break with about $17,500 in chips after being down to as low as $3,000. But he couldnt survive the night, getting busted by pocket aces after nearly 13 hours of play. Williamson went out a couple hours later.

Former champions Chris Moneymaker (2003) and Dan Harrington (1995) got knocked out in the second round Sunday.

Of all the players at the start, perhaps half earned their stakes from online poker tournaments to push the pool to about $56 million and the total prize money to $52.8 million. More than 1,100 arrived, all expenses paid plus $1,000 in spending money, courtesy of PokerStars.com. Once a game of cowboys and riverboat gamblers, the biggest poker tournament has become a sanitized, democratized affair thats nerd-friendly -- something lost and something gained in the process.

The online sites cater to people who have time and money to burn playing cards on their computers. PokerRoom.com sent a team of 50 players that ranged from a student at the University of Kentucky to a singer/songwriter from Buffalo, N.Y., a massage therapist in Virginia and a film editor in Los Angeles.

With that field stacked against them, even the best pros, who make $4 million to $8 million a year playing tournaments and cash games with side bets, werent safe from short runs of bad luck and the strange play of amateurs.

The fans at the World Series -- men and women from their 20s to 70s -- have been as quiet and respectful as a golf gallery. In this case, though, the silence largely has been due to the difficulty of watching live poker. Think of paint drying, grass growing. The players are tight, guarding their chips early, folding frequently before the flop. Without cameras to show the fans the hole cards, without announcers to explain the strategies, pot sizes and winning hands, its hard to understand whats going on.

The best way to follow the minute-by-minute progress of the players is through the live updates on CardPlayer.com, which has a team of experts dashing between the tables and their laptops, filing short, blog-like reports.

ESPN will start showing its slickly packaged version of the World Series on July 19, two days after the final table commences, and will begin with satellite tournaments until the climax in November. Even though the winner will long be known, the shows will probably still get high ratings as fans tune in to see how the games were won and how the players reacted.

Poker is as steeped in American lore as Wild Bill Hickock, who was shot dead in 1876 while holding aces and eights, but it took the technology of tiny cameras under the tables and the rise of online gambling to bring in millions of passionate fans.

The World Poker Tours hole-card cameras and expert coverage on The Travel Channel revolutionized the game; Celebrity Poker Showdown on Bravo stoked interest among non-gamblers; and ESPN ratcheted up interest in the World Series of Poker, giving the game and the top players a status and audience beyond anyones belief.

Phil Ivey, one of pokers only world-class black players, inevitabely draws comparisons to Tiger Woods.

AP

Dozens of strategy books, from Brunsons War and Peace-thick Super System I and II to less weighty tomes, have fed the boom. Narratives like James McManus Positively Fifth Street, and profile collections such as Tales from the Tiltboys and Aces and Kings by Michael Kaplan and Brad Reagan have enhanced the legends of the modern poker greats.

Boding well for the future, men and women in their 20s are the biggest part of that audience.

"For years and years, we were gamblers and we were seedy and shady and people didnt trust a gambler," Williamson said. "Five, six years ago, if you asked a professional poker player what he did, hed probably tell you he was a consultant. Now everyone knows us. Were entertainers. If people enjoy playing with us and have a good time, they dont mind as much losing their money.

"I had the sweetest old lady come up to me the other day. Shes probably 70, 75, and she was there with her sister and daughter. She said, My sisters your biggest fan, Robert, and shes too embarrassed to come over here and ask for your autograph. Could I get you to autograph this hat for her? I almost fell over."

PartyPoker.com, PokerStars.com, PokerRoom.com and FullTiltPoker.com are among the most popular of the more than 300 Web sites that have made the game accessible to the masses to play for money online.

PokerPulse.com, which analyzes the industry, estimates there are more than 1.8 million active real money players online. Most of those are in the United States, Canada, Britain and Scandinavia. The last two World Series main event champions, Raymer and Moneymaker, emerged from PokerStars tournaments.

Full Tilt Pokers pros -- Howard Lederer, Erick Lindgren, Bloch, Ferguson, Ivey, Gordon, Seidel, Harman and others -- are among the superstars of the game. Ivey, a 28-year-old from Atlantic City, N.J., is one of the only world-class black players and he inevitably draws comparisons to Tiger Woods. Lederer, "The Professor," won a $55,000 hand shortly before the end of the first round to reach Sundays second round along with Ivey.

When Full Tilt Poker threw a lavish charity bash at the chic La Bete nightclub last week, the players and celebs turned out. Penn Jillette, the big, loud half of the Penn & Teller magic and comedy duo, was there to join his poker buddies.

"Every poker player I knew until the year 2000 was a cheat -- and thats not because of the people I know, though its also that," Penn said. "Theyd deal bottoms. They could do everything. I never played with friends because I knew thered be a cheat there. Then the Full Tilt Poker guys came in with a kind of macho math and playing straight.

"Now there are 150 people playing poker that I believe arent cheating. That would not have happened anywhere in the world 20 years ago."

Penn believes most games still have cheats.

"All your country club games, all your friendly games, the cops and the firemen on the corner, they have a buddy there. In every one of those games someones cheating, and its a full-time cheat," said Penn, who is working on a book called "How to Cheat Your Friends at Poker" about a friend who "wasted his life" doing just that.

"Even in the World Series, theres always nail nicks on the cards," Penn said. "Those could happen accidentally but they dont. If you nail-nick one card, and you know what one card out of the deck gives you, even something useless like the four of clubs, your edge becomes extraordinary. You can tell when someone might be bluffing. You can tell whats coming up. And that involves sticking your finger on the side of the card and remembering which card you did it to.

"All the Full Tilt guys will notice it and call for a new deck. But when youve got thousands of people playing, its a good opportunity for cheating."

The alternative to cheating is having brains, skill and luck.

"If you have two aces and I have two kings, and all the money goes into the pot, you feel great about your chances of winning," Gordon said. "But 18 percent of the time youre going to lose. Now that doesnt sound like a lot. But youre going to get dealt pocket aces 14 times on average, about once every 221 hands or once every five hours. So if this scenario happened to you 14 times, your chances of surviving all 14 confrontations are only about 3 percent. Its the power of statistics."

Yet poker still retains its power to mesmerize players and fans, whether theyre new to the game or they played on their kitchen table when they were kids.

"Now everybody wants to play poker because they want to be like the guys on TV, they want to be like the celebrities," said Esfandiari, a 26-year-old who made his unique journey to the World Series from a childhood in Iran to an adolescence in San Jose, Calif., from a fascination with magic to a passion for poker. His first trick was "the floating dollar bill." Now hes floating millions from poker.

"When people start playing poker, they realize what a beautiful game it is," he said. "Its so pure in that there are no repeat situations. You can never have the same thing happen. Youre always learning."

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